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Will mass evangelism efforts continue to reach teenagers?

DALLAS (BP)–Whether the concept of mass evangelism pioneered by Billy Graham continues to succeed with the next generation depends on a willingness to take risks, said Rick Marshall, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association mission director. In 1991, Marshall proposed the concept of a Saturday night concert that would attract scores of teenagers. In the past decade, 12 of the 20 youth night crowds have broken stadium attendance records.

“The shift in cultural values and the aging of the team were set against the youthfulness of America,” Marshall said, explaining the move toward what is billed as “a concert for the next generation.” He described the transition as a watershed for the evangelistic organization and for him personally.

“We had just moved from Scotland to the next crusade in Philadelphia and I asked my kids what night they were planning to come.” Marshall recalled one of his teenagers saying, “‘Dad, we don’t want to go. There’s nothing there for us. Everything’s too old.'”

Marshall said, “I stepped away from that and looked at it unemotionally. We had a 73-year-old evangelist, an 82-year-old soloist and a 68-year-old song leader, and it was not that they weren’t holding up values for the world, but the whole image was not communicating to my children who were then in the eleventh, ninth and sixth grade. I realized if they were like most of the other kids from the churches and youth groups, they probably didn’t find anything in the program that would give them the integrity to invite their friends to come.”

At a later crusade in Cleveland, Marshall received further challenge from a Youth for Christ leader who questioned how the Graham organization intended to help them reach the unchurched. The youth leader compared the crusade approach to a brontosaurus to which Marshall replied, “Let’s see if we can construct a T-Rex or velociraptor.”

Marshall was advised he needed to provide “music a lot louder than parents would like” and “straight talk from a caring adult.” He knew that Graham was a master at communicating to every generation, but wasn’t sure the concept would fly. Barrows advised Marshall to carry the idea to their leader. Both of them were well aware of Graham’s roots in youth evangelism and YFC’s longtime motto of “anchored to the Rock, geared to the times.”

“He understood the next generation needed to be grounded, connected to the Rock, but also be relevant,” Marshall said. “When I laid it down for him, he said, ‘Let’s try it.’ I learned that when your heart is soft, your mind is open to change at any age.”

Launched at the 1994 Cleveland crusade, BGEA offered “the first concert to benefit its own audience” with Christian music stars DC Talk and Michael W. Smith along with Cleveland Cavalier three-point shoot-out champ Mark Price. By 2 p.m. on Saturday, 35,000 teenagers awaited the opening of the facility, and 65,000 were reported in attendance. “They filled the stadium faster than any event in memory,” Marshall said.

His biggest fear was that the teenagers would leave by the time Graham arrived. “The band members sat down behind him and said, almost metaphorically, ‘You stay because we’re staying.’ “Marshall remembered Graham raising three classic questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is life all about?

“That night we entered the ’90s, and so many teenagers responded that we ran out of counselors.”

Building off of the initial success with a youth crowd, the organization began featuring another popular Christian artist on Sunday night, drawing many teenagers back for another night. “Capturing this is hard enough and keeping them is even harder,” Marshall admitted.

He made a distinction between discerning what is biblical and what is cultural. “You can talk about the beat or how loud it is, but that’s not a theological issue. When the heart breaks and eyes are filled with tears for the lost, you’ll do a lot of things that God will bless in an effort to reach people for Christ.”

Grandparents are easier to convince than parents, Marshall insisted. “Kids typically love their grandparents unconditionally,” he added, finding among the local mission team a lot of grandparents whose hearts will soften toward doing something that will reach their grandchildren. “I tell them to go out and spend a dollar and fifteen cents for some earplugs. Then I challenge anybody to tell me that Kurt Franklin and Toby Mac don’t love Jesus and don’t represent for their generation the poetry that the Wesley brothers offered in their day.”

When Graham held a news conference prior to the 1995 Sacramento crusade, Marshall said a reporter expressed shock at the use of rock music at the meetings. He remembered Graham’s response, acknowledging that some people would call it rock and that it was loud. “He said, ‘When I went to a foreign country, whether in China or Europe, these young musicians are my interpreters for this generation.'”

Marshall added, “He got it and he still gets it.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter